The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that it took 100,000 men 20 years to construct the Great Pyramid of Giza — but how exactly did they do it?
Built 4,500 years ago during Egypt’s Old Kingdom, the Pyramids of Giza are more than elaborate tombs — they’re also one of historians’ best sources of insight into how the ancient Egyptians lived, since their walls are covered with illustrations of agricultural practices, city life, and religious ceremonies. But on one subject, they remain curiously silent: They offer no insight into how the pyramids were built.
It’s a mystery that has plagued historians for thousands of years, leading the wildest speculators into the murky territory of alien intervention or other fringe theories. However, the work of several archaeologists in the last few years has dramatically changed the landscape of Egyptian studies.
After millennia of debate, the mystery might finally be over.
The Enigma Of How The Pyramids Were Built
Why have the pyramids perplexed generations of archaeologists? For one, they’re an astonishing engineering feat made particularly impressive by what we know their architects didn’t have. Even by modern standards, the Egyptian pyramids are astoundingly complex and structurally sound. Factor in the fact that the ancient Egyptians lacked a variety of tools that would have made such astounding structures easier to build, and it’s easy to see why their construction has been the subject of so many different theories.
For example, the Egyptians hadn’t yet discovered the wheel, so it would have been difficult to transport massive stones — some weighing as much as 90 tons — from place to place. They hadn’t yet invented the pulley either, a device that would have made it much easier to lift large stones into place. They didn’t even have iron tools to chisel and shape the blocks.
And yet Khufu, the largest of the Pyramids of Giza, is 481 feet of massive, breathtaking stonework. Construction on it first started around 2560 B.C.E.
Khufu and its neighboring tombs have survived 4,500 years of wars and desert storms — and they’re made from plans and measurements accurate to within a fraction of an inch. There is a reason why they are considered among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World — and why they are the only one still standing.
The Heated Debate Over How The Pyramids Were Built
Many historians are convinced that the building materials for the Pyramids of Giza came from nearly 500 miles away.
To solve the problem of how such large stones traveled so far, some researchers have hypothesized that the Egyptians rolled their stones across the desert.
Though they didn’t have the wheel as we think of it today, they might have made use of cylindrical tree trunks laid side to side along the ground. If they lifted their blocks onto those tree trunks, it’s entirely possible that they could have rolled them across the desert.
This theory goes a long way toward explaining how the pyramids’ smaller limestone blocks might have made their way to Giza — but it’s hard to believe it would work for some of the truly massive stones featured in the tombs.
Proponents of this theory also have to contend with the fact that there isn’t any evidence that the Egyptians actually did this. Clever though it would have been, there are no depictions of stones — or anything else — being rolled this way in Egyptian art or writings.
Then there’s the challenge of how to lift the stones into position on an increasingly tall pyramid.
Ancient Greek historians born after the pyramids’ construction believed the Egyptians built ramps like scaffolding along the faces of the tombs and carried stones up that way. Some modern theorists have pointed to strange air pockets that suggest the ramps were actually inside the walls of the pyramids — which is why no sign of them remains on the exterior faces.
No conclusive evidence has been found in favor of either of these ideas, but both remain intriguing possibilities.
Startling New Solutions Shake Up The Debate
Amid such mystery, two new revelations about how the pyramids were built have come to light in recent years. The first was the work of a Dutch team who took a second look at Egyptian art depicting laborers hauling massive stones on sleds through the desert.
They realized that the tiny figure pouring water in the stone’s path wasn’t simply offering the desert some kind of ceremonial libation — he was wetting the sand because of the principles of fluid mechanics: Water helps the grains of sand stick together and significantly reduces friction, allowing the ancient Egyptians to more easily move massive stone blocks across the desert.
The team, who published their findings in the journal Physical Review Letters, built their own replica sleds and tested their theory. The result? The Egyptians might have been able to move stones larger than archaeologists and historians ever believed possible.
But that’s not all. Egypt expert Mark Lehner has put forward another theory that makes how the pyramids were built a little less mysterious.
Though today the pyramids sit in the middle of miles of dusty desert, they were once surrounded by the floodplains of the Nile River. According to a 2003 article in Harvard Magazine, Lehner hypothesized that if you could look far beneath the city of Cairo, you would find ancient Egyptian waterways that channeled the Nile’s water to the site of the pyramids’ construction.
The Egyptians could have, in theory, loaded these massive stones onto boats and transported them along the river right to where they needed them. Best of all, Lehner found proof: His excavations revealed an ancient port right by the pyramids where the stones would have landed.
The icing on the cake is the work of Pierre Tallet, an archaeologist who, in 2013, unearthed the papyrus journal of a man named Merer, who appears to have been a low-level bureaucrat charged with transporting some of the materials to Giza.
After four years of laborious translation, Tallet discovered the ancient diarist — responsible for the oldest papyrus scroll ever found — described his experiences overseeing a team of 40 workmen who opened dikes to divert water from the Nile into man-made canals that led straight to the pyramids.
He recorded his journey with several gigantic limestone blocks from Tura to Giza — and his writings offer the most direct insight there’s ever been into how the pyramids were built, putting a piece of one of the world’s oldest puzzles into place.
Another Ancient Egyptian Mystery Solved
Mark Lehner’s excavations also settled another debate about how the pyramids were built: the question of slave labor. For years, popular culture has imagined the monuments as the bloody sites of backbreaking forced labor where thousands perished in involuntary servitude.
Though the work was dangerous, it’s now thought that the men who built the tombs were most likely skilled laborers who volunteered their time in exchange for excellent rations. The 1999 excavation of what researchers sometimes call the “pyramid city” shed light on the lives of the builders who made their homes in nearby compounds.
The archaeological team unearthed astonishing quantities of animal bones, especially young cow bones — suggesting the pyramids’ laborers regularly ate prime beef and other prized meats cultivated on the outlying farms.
They found comfortable-looking barracks fitted with the conveniences of well-off Egyptians that appeared to house a rotating crew of laborers.
They also uncovered a substantial graveyard of workers who died on the job — yet another reason researchers now think the men responsible for the pyramids’ construction were likely to be skilled laborers. The work was dangerous enough without throwing the untrained into the mix.
Though they were handsomely rewarded and most likely working voluntarily — in short, not slaves — how they felt about the risks they took remains a mystery. Were they proud to serve the pharaohs and build their vehicles to the afterlife? Or was their labor a social obligation, a kind of draft that mixed danger and duty?
We can only hope further excavations will continue to offer exciting new answers.